Joint Strike Fighter
This Should Be Interesting. You're about to embark upon what is, for me, a unique review experience (assuming you bother to read to the end of the text and not just glance quickly at the score before moving on to Andy Martin's fine Worms 2 review). As I sit here typing these very words, I haven't actually decided on what score to give Joint Strike Fighter, the new flight sim to come winging its way from Norway (via Eidos).
As it stands right now, I'm fluctuating somewhere between an 88 score and a 92. And since it would seem that my words influence the nation's buying decisions (or j so I'm told), bestowing a Classic award or I a mere Recommended - even though we're only talking about a couple of points - can I directly affect whether people actually buy the game. Heavy responsibility indeed.
So let us begin. Watch as I analyse the different elements of the game. Thrill as the score rises steadily then falls dramatically, before climbing once more. Put a stirring soundtrack on the hi-fi (maybe Star Wars, or possibly Crimson Tide) and it'll be all the more exciting. Probably.
Plump up the cushions
Well, I suppose the obvious starting point is the graphical quality. Joint Strike Fighter is indeed a lovely looking game. I haven't seen finer graphics in a flight sim since, well, the last one (the advent of 3Dfx is really making comments like those superfluous these days). JSFis particularly lovely though. The object detail is second to none, the planes are gloriously textured - and not just the main player either. For once in a flight sim, equal attention appears to have been paid to the rest of the airborne arsenal and everything looks as detailed as you can get outside of a real-life military base.
Extra credit must be paid to the terrain detail. The landscapes are superb. Rolling hills and sweeping valleys have never, er, rolled or sweeped any better. Early morning mist clings to the tree tops and bathes everything in the kind of beauty that was previously only known to television travel shows. So, score-wise things are on the up. We've left the 8O's zone and are now hovering somewhere around 90, possibly even leaning towards 91. Let's see how we fare with the actual gameplay though, shall we?
Yes - tell us about the gameplay!
Oh dear, there's a problem at the very start. I've watched the nicely presented video 'promos' for the JSF program that are supposed to familiarise the player with this previously unseen aircraft project, but I still don't really know all that much about the planes: notably how to fly them, how all the brand new stealth and weapons functions work and so on. Some kind of training scenario would appear to be the order of the day. After all, this is the first time anyone outside the charmingly named Skunkworks facility has ever had the chance to fly one of these superplanes. Surely we should be given a basic run down on how to go about it?
But no. You either have a 'quickstarf dogfight mode or the campaign settings. Afghanistan, Columbia, Korea or the Kola Peninsula are the exotic locales to blow up, but no Nevada Desert or similar. As Chris Searle might say, I've got to become a top pilot in the US Air Force, flying a brand new multi-million dollar fighter plane and I've got just six days to do so. Time to go In At The Deep End.
So the score has dropped back below 90 and appears to be falling. But wait, a lifeline. Despite the newcomer-unfriendly attitude, spending some time with the plane does reveal a noticeable fact - it's actually quite enjoyable to fly. Although a lot of the time I barely had a clue what half of the neon HUD symbology actually meant (I thought the DSS was a benefits service for the unemployed -why it kept flashing on and off above my altitude bar was a mystery), you do tend to pick up the basics quite easily. The game still assumes a certain basic
knowledge of the game genre on the part of the player though, and it's a shame that more wasn't made of the fact that this is the very first time that these planes have been simulated. But having said that, it feels very nice when you're in the air, and so it would be unfair to penalise it too harshly for that. And I can't praise it highly enough for including one feature that I've longed for in a flight sim for as long as I can remember: eject from your plane and you get to fly the parachute to the ground. Yes, actually fly it! Even better, when you've landed you can walk around with a gun and shoot things. It's not exactly Tomb Raider but it's fun. So the score is now cruising at a comfortable 89. Coffee and biscuits will be served by the cabin crew shortly.
Only one area left now. We've seen that JSFlooks bloody lovely, and we've also heard that a lack of training scenarios is offset by a very playable engine. So it all comes down now to the campaigns. How well do the missions work?
It would be remiss of me not to say that the campaign interface itself is annoyingly fiddly. Not bad or lacking in detail, just cumbersome. It's also not quite as detailed as some other games - only cursory thought is given to wingmen for instance - and the unit icons are annoyingly cluttered in places (in fact they're very reminiscent of the old Midwinter: Flames Of Freedom icons). The score is dropping once again.
Oh no, disaster! It was all looking so good for JSF, but Io, it hath been felled by a final gutting blow. Or has it? Fortunately, salvation is to come, as in the true tradition of a Hollywood blockbuster, right at the end when things look at their bleakest. Despite my reservations about the actual campaign interface, the implementation of the missions and the world at large is first-rate. When you're in the air, the world really does feel alive. Convoys move from one town to the next, other planes fly along assigned mission routes everything draws you in and keeps the atmosphere running high - and the score rising once more.
So, the score?
A final flurry of goodness battling the malevolent forces of bad has given JSF hope once more. Flight sims traditionally score pretty highly, mainly because it's pretty hard to make a bad one, especially with the advent of 3Dfx allowing ingame graphics to look better than ever. But JSF needn't worry on that score; my only real reservation is that novice pilots will find it unfriendly. Long-term jet-heads will no doubt take to it like a duck takes to orange sauce, revelling in the challenge presented not only by the enemy forces but by the new and unfamiliar hardware.
There's one other blip on the radar screen - DID's F-22 ADF. Everything I've seen of this behemoth says that it will redefine the way we look at flight sims. The only weapon that JSFcan really throw back at it is that it has a working campaign engine in the initial release. DID, take note.
If you compare Joint Strike Fighterto Jane's F-15, you'll find that it falls at the opposite end of the authenticity scale. While the F-22 is going to be in service before long, the X35 and X32 multi-role fighters in JSFare still at the shortlist stage, with the winner to be announced in 2001 and to enter service in 2008. While not exactly X-Wings (yes, we know that the Star Wars universe was a long time ago, but the point's still valid), these planes are pretty damn futuristic, and are designed to be small, stealthy and manoeuvrable.
Of course, since these planes are so experimental and secret, it's safe to assume that JSF is less of an accurate combat simulation, and more an exercise in what if..But Eidos have done a pretty good job of making the weapons systems and avionics in JSF seem pretty authentic. Basically, both planes can carry a combination of air-to-air and strike weapons, both internally and on wing pylons, but with so much emphasis on stealth, radar-reflecting external stores are often avoided.
The cockpits in JSFare of the dynamic, mouse-activated kind, with the usual keyboard alternatives. Unfortunately, you can't activate the controls while the game is paused, and since the keyboard shortcuts can be a bit long-winded, things can get rather hectic. The displays themselves are very nice, and similar to those in TAW, with different ones accessed via the numeric keypad and a nifty 3D scrolling effect as you move between them.
Since most of the action in JSF happens at low level, it's a real bonus that the landscape moves past at such a rate - it creates the best sense of speed at this level of any sim. Frame rates are good once you reduce the level of detail, too. While everything's very smooth, it's all a bit artificiallooking with a slight Calien planet' feel, but maybe this far in the future this is what Earth will look like.
The game's structure is rather odd, with campaigns and instant action dogfights, but no training or single missions. This means that the only way to practice your ground attack skills is to start a campaign, fly to the target, and hope that you understand the instructions written in the manual. If you cock up at this point, you either get shot down.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode